Tag Archives: modernity

Language as alienation

This was written as a companion piece and response to an earlier post, Abstract and concrete language in debate.

Commodification is the process of valuing items according to what they can be exchanged for [1]. Exchange generally takes the form of money, but it can hypothetically be anything, as in Smith’s infamous yet rarely-existing barter [2]. The traditional critique of commodification comes from Marx and briefly states that in commodifying a thing, be it immaterial or material, we are reducing its existence to one concept and ignoring all others. In this frame, the only thing that matters is the exchange-value, the dollars we can swap it for. The other qualities of the thing are irrelevant and increasingly do not at all determine its exchange-value, as they did in the time of Marx and the other classical economists [3]. Regardless of the source of the “value” of an item or concept, through commodification, those values are stripped away, to leave only price to represent it. In so doing, we impoverish our existence, reduce ourselves to one-dimensional creatures and our limit behaviour to a single way of examining the world and our interactions.

After recently reading the first chapter of Adorno and Horkmeimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment [4], and previously reading Writing and Seeing Architecture, by Protzamparc and Sollers [5], I realise this critique of contemporary life does not go far enough in its questioning of abstraction. As commodification reduces items and concepts to a single simplified, abstract, quantifiable representation, that of money, so science and its tool, abstract language, reduce all experience to a single concept, that of their relation to and use by humans in the pursuit of some goal. These goals in the era of modernity and postmodernity have been varied, but have mostly revolved around Kant’s suggestion that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance form another” [6]. From this, we see the goal as being the project of understanding the world and acting on it in a controlled, useful manner. As Adorno and Horkheimer point out, this requires the reduction of the world as it exists and as we sense it, to representations which are solely relative to us as humans, for the requirements we have, rather than in terms which are inherent to the object or concept. These two positions, that of sensing and of representing, lie along a continuum; of course there is no possibility of referring to anything without some hint of a human’s relation to that thing, but it appears science and modernity have pushed us ever closer to a more abstract, human-oriented view of the world. Similarly to commodification, this reduces our world, impoverishes our experience, alienates us from the world, exactly as we gain more understanding of it. No longer are we able or permitted to merely engage with the world according to our senses, feelings and emotions, we must abstract away from those and replace them with a world view constructed entirely of our own making, in our heads, using non-worldly, non-sense-based, images and ideas we overlay on existence. I suggest that this is similar in form to commodification; it is more expressive no doubt, but it is not the totality of the thing, merely a human-produced representation. The more we refine that representation, the more it obscures the original, tending towards Baudrillard’s simulacra [7].

It appears we have discovered the positive in the non-representational/sensory/concrete interpretation of the world, a position referenced as less important in the earlier post on this topic. We might also go along with Adorno and Horkheimer in stating that abstraction is one of the key process, if not the defining factor, of the enlightenment project, which lends a distinctly deterministic air to the process of commodification. It furtherĀ  raises questions about the seeming contradiction of using abstract language to dissent against the use of markets and commodification.

There have been various techniques and mechanisms suggested to reduce this condition of being elsewhere, from meditation, to mindfulness to simply turning off the computer/mobile device (it is an interesting although unsurprising artefact of the omnipresent Unix philosophy that all communication should be in human language [8] and thus be a series of abstractions). We might add to this list anything which brings us closer to the thing itself, such as rejecting mass-produced food, walking instead of driving or engaging in immanent rather than transcendent governance. Immanent versus transcendent is probably another way of viewing abstract versus concrete. All of these ideas, while useful, feel to me trite and simplistic, as if suggesting they only solve part of the problem, as if there is a gap between the two which is unfulfilled. Is there no way to engage with complicated, non-sensory ideas and concepts which is not alienating? Is the solution to this alienation nothing more than a “balance” between the sensory and the representational? Looking ahead to fantasy science-fiction, how would so-called “thought-reading” affect this, would that still entail a level of abstraction or would the short-circuiting of language remove it?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodification
[2] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Chapter 2
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socially_necessary_labour_time
[4] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pages 6-7
[5] Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and seeing architecture. Page 46
[6] http://theliterarylink.com/kant.html
[7] http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/baudrillard.theartauction%20.pdfhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy

Abstract and concrete language in debate

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment, about architecture and language. One chapter from the book has helped me understand a bit about some of the disagreements which occur between various members. This is the relevant paragraph from the book, I’ll dig into it in a moment and explain why I think it’s important:

According to our Western tradition, from the time of the ancient Greeks, the cogito, there is no thought outside of language because language is its sole vehicle. It is through language that we succeeded in freeing ourselves from the muck of the multitude of sensations enveloping us, from prejudgments and fears, in order to name, classify, choose; this is what the rational thought that came into being in ancient Greece holds. Language extracts us from the sensible world and spares us from having to experience or reexperience or mimic a thing, an affect, so as to be able to imagine it. The aim is to short-circuit experience; it is thus that the concept comes into being. We still have this preconceived idea that intelligence requires abstraction. [1]

The text is talking about the so-called “progression” from concrete (sense-based) to abstract (language-based) interaction with the world and how this shapes human behaviour. It’s rather biased, using sly language to posit one type of behaviour as bad (muck, fears), the other as good (rational, freeing), but the principle under the judgement is sound. As an example, here are some examples of concrete (sense-based) and abstract (language-based) interaction with the world:

Question: What is a car?
Concrete (sense-based) answer 1: That is a car [points to a vehicle on the side of the road].
Concrete (sense-based) answer 2: A car gets me to work in the morning
Concrete (sense-based) answer 3: Cars on the motorway next to my house keep me awake until 3am
(and so on)

Abstract (language-based) answer: A car is a motor vehicle, generally with an internal combustion engine fuelled by petrol or Diesel, although electric motor are more common recently. It generally has four wheels, although may have three or up to six. It usually seats 4 or 5 people, but may have space for as few as two or as many as seven. It can also usually carry luggage and travels at speeds of up to 100km/h, some may travel faster, up to 400km/h. (and so on)

Note that each term within the abstract answer relies upon further abstract definitions which we must understand in order that we can comprehend it, and those on further definitions, and so on. Turtles all the way down, as the late, great Terry Pratchett reminded us.

The concrete answers here rely on direct human experience and the senses, the abstract answer on language and concepts, fairly convoluted language at that. The first answers are something everyone can relate to and understand; although they may be imprecise and inaccurate, they are sufficient for ordinary day-to-day activities. The last answer is typical of an academic mind set, that is a university-based understanding of the world where everything is generalised in order to produce rules and predict behaviour, whereas the first set of answers attempts no generalisation and talks about specific examples of behaviour in a direct way. These positions (language and sense-based interactions) lie along a continuum, with pure abstraction/language at one end, pure concreteness/sensation at the other. All interactions lie in between on the continuum and there are probably no pure examples of either, but some are closer to one end than the other. I would suggest that the thinking of those with a certain type of academic background (philosophy, business, computer science, maths, sociology) lies closer to the abstract end and the thinking of those with a vocational/non-academic background (plumbing, nursing, welding) lies closer to the concrete/sense-based end, although this is not totailising. When the interactions of those two types collide there is a problem, they are talking in different languages, rooted in a different understanding of the world. An important side note here are the recent changes in non-academic/vocational; during the last half century, there have been tendencies in those areas for more abstraction and conceptualisation, less sense-based understanding. For more, see Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonion Negri, specifically the concept of cognitive labour.

So, what’s the point of this, how does this usefully relate to Tangle Ball and the rest of the world?

Firstly, I’m not entirely sure. Secondly, it indicates there are deeper differences between some humans than we perhaps account for when we have a discussion. When a person explains some abstract concept or other to someone who interacts with the world in a concrete way, they are doing something akin to speaking in a different language, producing confusion. As Yoda tells us, this confusion results in fear, anger and eventually hatred. That bad situation is partly resolved by understanding and proceeding cautiously, although there will probably always be a gap and I don’t know how to fix that.

A further, compounding part of the problem is that the two ways of seeing the world are not viewed as equal-but-different, but one (abstract/language) is seen as fundamentally more important than the other (concrete/sense). This is flawed and strays from the principle that all humans are important and valid and equal, and also negates the essential role sense-based interpretation plays in carrying out tasks involving the manipulation of physical objects. Suggestions welcome for how to fix or mitigate this problem.

Those of you who are paying attention will have noticed the irony here: the description of this idea is and can only be entirely abstract, based in language, not in the senses

[1] Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and seeing architecture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, c2008. p 46